This might seem like an odd topic given that just last week we published our 2013 season predictions. Every spring, we—and many others—try our best to consider the talent on hand for each team and determine how things will shake out come October. And every fall we find that, often to a significant extent, we were off base.
Sure, some of those miscalculations are due to injuries. The 2011 Boston Red Sox may not have called it a season in July and dealt many of their pricey players to the Los Angeles Dodgers if their other high-dollar players were healthy and effective. On the flip side, the Cincinnati Reds were expected to be good last year, and they were. Yes, they lost Joey Votto for much of the season, but having their five initial rotation members take the ball in all but one start played a significant role in Cincinnati’s division title. So, yeah, injuries.
A truly nebulous factor many baseball analysts use to account for their failed predictions is the all-encompassing “luck.” A team outperforms its Pythagorean record? Must be good luck. A hitter posts a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) 50 points below the league average? Sucks to be him, but it will balance out next year. Lady Luck giveth, and Lady Luck taketh away.
But what are the other reasons prognosticators flub the upcoming year’s standings, let alone something as fickle as MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year selections? Why do we sometimes fail to see the forest, the trees, and even the sky from time to time?
One factor—and this is something we call managers out on frequently—is that we’re conservative. Few people want to stand out for fear of looking foolish. (One exception is our own Mat Kovach, who is such an indomitable Indians fan that he picks them to win the World Series every year and even donated a “t” from his first name to help create the “Go Tribe!” slogan.)
If last March a member of our staff had picked the O’s and A’s to make the playoffs, imagine the invective that would have been directed at the author of those picks. The comments section would have been awash with accusations of homerism, mind-altering drugs or just plain stupidity. And the THT internal mailing list would have been much worse.
Another key factor we outsiders aren’t privy to is what exactly goes on within front offices. This isn’t an appeal-to-authority argument, where we should hand over our minds to those “in the know,” but an acknowledgement that the people running teams have more resources, more data and more expertise than any of us. And sometimes those people are clever enough to make moves that from the fans’ perspective look crazy but work out beautifully.
How did the 2012 Orioles have only one pitcher start more than 20 games or pitch more than 134 innings yet still win 93 games? How did Baltimore survive despite using a grand total of 52 players—26 pitchers and 26 position players—over the course of the campaign? And how on earth do the O’s go 29-9 in one-run games and win 16 consecutive extra-inning affairs?
Yeah, I know, it’s luck, it’s not repeatable, and it’s not sustainable. It worked for the most of the 2012 season, though, didn’t it? Okay, but how?
Certainly, general manager Dan Duquette deserves credit for signing key contributors like Nate McLouth and Wei-Yin Chen, trading for the likes of Jason Hammel, Joe Saunders and Pedro Strop, and shuttling players on and off the 25-man roster, such as shortstop-turned third baseman Manny Machado. And manager Buck Showalter—long considered an excellent field general—mixed, matched, tweaked and toyed with his lineup and rotation with devastating efficacy. He put his players in spots where they could succeed, and they came through quite often.
Will that happen again in 2013? Everyone (including me) says no, but if Baltimore outperforms its expected record yet again this season—even if it’s to a lesser extent—should anyone really be shocked?
On the other coast, sabermetric darling Billy Beane enjoyed a renaissance after a fallow stretch in Oakland. I’ll admitted that I had begun to wonder if Beane’s success had been linked to having the trio of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder in the rotation for their prime seasons, but the team’s late-season surge to the AL West title last year demonstrated Beane can do more than ride his big horses to victory.
Beane and the rest of the Oakland front office showed they still know how to put together a competitive team while keeping costs down. Signing Yoenis Cespedes and Bartolo Colon (not to overlook his PED suspension), trading for Josh Reddick, Jarrod Parker, and Tommy Milone, and grabbing Travis Blackley off waivers are a few examples of the acumen the A’s demonstrated in assembling last year’s division champion on the cheap.
Counting on another set of fantastic performances from rookie pitchers isn’t realistic, but adding reinforcements this winter such as catcher John Jaso, shortstop Jed Lowrie and outfielder Chris Young will once again give Oakland an opportunity to run with the big boys from Anaheim and Arlington. You know, the ones printing money from their new television deals.
The poor little A’s—with a stadium they desperately want to leave behind, attendance figures dwarfed by most of their competition, and another meager payroll—are quite likely to put a scare into the Angels and Rangers all season long.
The thing is, even if Baltimore and Oakland fall flat this year, there will be a team or two that looked dead in the water in March that will be alive and kicking in September, thrashing the supposed favorites and making a run for October glory.
But who will it be? Let’s try out a few scenarios.
The Mets? Maybe. If they can patch together a major league-quality outfield, John Buck and Travis d’Arnaud provide a good return for R.A. Dickey, and the young pitching coalesces, New York could challenge the Nationals and Braves.
The Royals? They have a collection of highly touted young hitters who all could click at the same time, James Shields could anchor the rotation, and Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis could follow him with above-average mound performances. The Tigers look terrific again, but they waited until the final week of the 2012 campaign to assert themselves. A lackadaisical Detroit summer could open up an opportunity for Kansas City to surprise.
The Rockies? Sure, why not? (Okay, probably not, but work with me.) If Colorado’s hitters can thump the ball outside Denver, and they can get some health and consistency from the rotation—meaning the bullpen doesn’t have to throw four innings a game—the Rockies could make the $200-million Dodgers and defending world champion Giants nervous.
This type of “what-if” scenarios can be created for every seemingly sad-sack team. And one or two of those shot-in-the-dark schemes actually are quite likely to happen. We just don’t know which ones.
Hope and faith are alive and well in baseball. Large-market vs. small-market, big payroll vs. little payroll, three million fans compared to half that—those factors all play a part, but they don’t tell the whole story. Intelligence, planning, and coaching; a new baby in the family, a divorce, or other personal situations; and, yes, plain ol’ luck—this multitude of characteristics of a baseball season will hold sway, too, influencing the games in unforeseen ways.
We take our best guesses at how the season will play out, but we do so knowing we’ll be wrong. It’s one of the beauties of baseball, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.